“Gjoa, we’re looking around on this ice, and we’d like to know if you have bear bangers and a firearm on board. Over.”
“Uh, bear bangers, but no firearm, Voyager!”
“OK, Gjoa, we’re going to see how close we can get to you. We want to try to nudge some of this heavy ice out of your way. Over.”
That wasn’t the first exchange between the crew of One Ocean Expedition’s 117-metre Voyager and the small alloy sloop Gjoa, sailed by Glen and Ann Bainbridge of Toronto, but it might have been the most tense. And it launched a few hours of true Arctic drama that tied in everything from a sudden envelopment by heavy sea ice to prowling polar bears. Only scurvy may have been missing.
It began with the combination of rising tides and swirling currents at the western exit of Bellot Strait, south of Somerset Island in Canada’s Arctic, where the strait’s west-rushing waters meet those flowing south through Peele Sound. The confluence is known for its vortex currents and its tendency to pull in ice from all directions. “On our charts there’s a warning to beware of this spot,” says Aaron Lawton, One Ocean’s Expedition Leader and director of operations.
The main search zone of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition to find Sir John Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror is Arctic Ocean floor northwest of King William Island. To reach it, the Voyager — with Royal Canadian Geographical Society members, its expedition partners and other cruise-goers on board — sailed south through Prince Regent Inlet, and by August 29 was heading west into 35-kilometre Bellot Strait, where ocean currents move at a swift nine knots (about 17 kilometres per hour). After lingering near the east entrance to Bellot until the tide rose around 8 a.m., the polar cruiser slipped through, passing muskox, polar bears, cliff-side colonies of Thayers gulls and Zenith Point, the northernmost jut of mainland North America.
The Gjoa and its two-person crew, meanwhile, had made the same transit earlier that morning, destination Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and had just radioed in (likely to NORDREG, the Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone) from the west side of the passage to report their location.
“It all looked clear,” Glen would later say from his deck, “and within about 30 seconds we were trapped.”
In the last few kilometres of Bellot Strait, the crew on Voyager’s bridge — and everyone else on the expedition, for that matter — became more and more intrigued by the tiny sloop with sails tied down, beset and off kilter in the middle of several kilometers of tightly packed ice straight ahead.
“It’s easy to sit up here and say, ‘How did they get in there?’ ” says Ted Kennedy, ice pilot on the Voyager. “But when you’re only a few feet off the water you can’t see past the floe in front of you.”
When a voice called out “Polar bear at two o’clock!” every pair of binoculars and spotting scope on deck was out at once. Not one, but two hale-and-hearty-looking bears were padding within a few hundred metres on each side of the Gjoa “These folks are already not going to get out of the ice by themselves,” said Lawton, relaying messages from the bridge to all watching from the bow. “And we’re a bit worried because one of these bears is slowly making its way toward them. The deck of that boat is barely higher than those animals are on all fours.”
For the next half hour the Voyager crawled through the heavy ice, using its bow thrusters and applying differential power to its two engines to steer, with rudders streamed astern so they weren’t damaged. Although the ice was first-year, and already broken into large chunks, much of it was more than two-metres thick — heavier than the vessel (which is ice strengthened but not an ice breaker) would normally ever sail through. But as Lawton jokes, “Our Captain Ionin’s touch is very gentle.”¬
Some of the crew started debating whether a 45-70 or 30-06 rifle would be most effective in the event of a polar bear attack on the Gjoa. As if on cue, the bolder of the bears, on the starboard side, turned and ambled away across the ice patch.
In minutes the tight ice around the little boat had been swept away by the Voyager’s hull, and without taking damage the Gjoa was able to spin around and fall in behind the larger ship, where it was tied on and towed out of the ice pack, away from polar bears and dodgy currents. After glancing off a few ice floes hard enough to leave paint streaks, she was released into open water to cheers, waving and great relief (with a few sheepish looks seen on the Gjoa).
It was a happy ending, but still a pointed reminder that for all our growing familiarity with the Arctic and modern conveniences — better and better bathymetric charting, GPS technology and frequent updates from the Canadian Ice Service — we can still be at the mercy of the natural forces that also killed or made powerless some of the best-equipped Arctic explorers.
“We’re on a mission, but it doesn’t matter what your goal is,” explains Lawton, “whether you’re a tourist ship or a cargo vessel. Everything gets put aside and you provide assistance to another mariner in distress.”
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